I first discovered fantasy as a child through L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I was fascinated by the Oz stories, and read them over and over. Baum whetted my appetite for something greater and more substantial, but it was several years before I finally discovered Tolkien. By that time, the memory of my love affair with Ozma of Oz and Baum’s creations had faded almost to nothing.
Recently, however, I purchased another copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (having somehow lost all the copies I once possessed) and gave it another go. I was startled to discover some striking similarities between Tolkien’s writings and Baum’s. To be sure, Tolkien’s writing is superior in every way. As a story and as literature they’re not even on the same level.
Nevertheless, I noted several amazing parallels between The Hobbit and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz which might possibly indicate that among all the inspirations which helped shape Tolkien’s visions of Middle-earth, amid the ancient legends, heroic myths and epic sagas which mingled together in the glorious cauldron of his inspired imagination, there might also have been a humble turn-of-the-century American fairy tale by L. Frank Baum.
1. The land of Oz is divided into four quarters – East, West, North, and South. The Shire is divided into four Farthings.
2. The Munchkins inhabit the lands to the East and are short persons about the height of Dorothy. They are countryfolk, farmers, who eat heartily and maintain well kept fields and flower gardens. Their chief color is blue. Tolkien’s hobbits are also short persons, countryfolk, who eat heartily and maintain well tended gardens and fields. They dress chiefly in green and yellow.
3. Baum’s Munchkins live in round dwellings with domed roofs. Tolkien’s hobbits live in “holes” with round doors.
4. Dorothy unwillingly finds herself smack in the middle of an adventure when all she really wants to do is go home. Bilbo is also a reluctant hero who is always thinking of his beloved hobbit hole.
5. Baum’s good witch is named Glinda. Tolkien’s good wizard is named Gandalf.
6. On the way to Oz, Baum’s travelers encounter difficulty when the Cowardly Lion collapses in the deadly poppy field. The poppies cause great drowsiness and the lion is too heavy to lift or carry to safety. In The Hobbit, Bombur, the fattest and heaviest of the dwarves, falls into the deadly stream in Mirkwood which puts him to sleep.
7. Dorothy is warned not to leave the yellow brick road. Bilbo and the dwarves are warned not to stray off the track in Mirkwood.
8. At one point in Baum’s story, the Cowardly Lion is called upon to defeat a terrible menace in a dark forest which turns out to be nothing less than a tremendous spider. In the Hobbit, Bilbo defeats the spiders of Mirkwood.
9. The Wicked Witch of the West meets her end when Dorothy douses her with a bucket of water. In The Hobbit, Smaug’s fire is quenched in the Long Lake.
10. In Oz, the Winged Monkeys carry Dorothy and her companions to safety several times. In The Hobbit, the Eagles are winged rescuers for Bilbo and the dwarves.
These and other similarities give ample reason to wonder whether Tolkien ever read Baum’s work, and whether the tale of Oz influenced him in the creation of his stories of Middle-earth. Baum’s Oz was an entirely revolutionary treatment of the fairy tale. He rejected the moralistic children’s tales common in America in 1900 and the bloody “horror” stories of the brothers Grimm. He wanted to tell an entirely new fairy tale. Likewise, Tolkien rejected allegory in his writings and is often credited with creating the modern fantasy genre.
Though we are all great admirers of Tolkien and have long revered him as the Master of fantasy literature, let’s not forget Mr. Baum, whose tale of Oz might just have helped Tolkien bring his wonderful creations to light.